In the great tradition of such inspirational teams as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Strouse and Adams, Kander and Ebb, and Ahrens and Flaherty, the PNW musical theatre duo of Samuel Jarius Pettit (just Sam to his friends) and Justin Beal are carving a name for themselves in the Seattle musical theatre scene. I greatly enjoyed an early workshop performance of their show The Marvelous Land of Oz several summers back. Happily, it has just launched a full production premiere at Studio East in Redmond.
Sam Pettit has appeared locally and nationally with Seattle Opera, Barrington Stage Company & Village Theatre, among many others. He also choreographed the 2012 Pullalyup Fair TV spot. As a writer he created the book and lyrics to Robin Hood and The Marvelous Land of Oz with composer Justin Beal, as well as the upcoming 2017 production of Wonderland! The current Associate Artistic Director of Studio East, he has worked regionally as choreographer and director on such shows as Legally Blonde, Young Frankenstein, A Little Princess, Pirates of Penzance, Peter Pan, Camelot, Damn Yankees, Once On This Island, Seussical, and Bye Bye Birdie. Sam is a co-founder of Origami Girl Productions which had their last production voted as a “Best of Fest” for the 2014 Seattle Fringe Festival. Sam is a proud and passionate member of the LGBT community.
A graduate of the UW, Justin has been a musical director for Studio East, Seattle Musical Theatre, and Village Theatre Kidstage. He recently musically directed Honk! and ‘Twas the Night at Studio East this season. As an actor, he has performed at Seattle Musical Theatre, Studio East and Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater. He was last seen on stage playing the role of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at The Repertory Collective in Sammamish. As a writer, he wrote the music for Robin Hood and The Marvelous Land of Oz with Samuel Pettit, and is working on Wonderland!, which will have its premiere next year. He is a great friend and supporter to the LGBT community.
How did you two come to team up?
Sam: We were assigned together on a summer camp and discovered we had similar musical sensibilities even though we are very different people. Justin is more conservative than I am, where I tend to be more flamboyant and “out there.”
Justin: We got assigned to work on a summer camp together about 8 years ago and I found that Sam would put a show together exactly the way that I would have envisioned it.
Sam: Justin had the knack of knowing what I wanted musically in any given moment.
Justin: And within just a few weeks we started finishing each other’s sentences as we directed and worked.
How many collaborations have you had so far?
Justin: Too many to count.
Sam: If I direct a show, it is usually expected that Justin will be the musical director. In fact, there is a show shirt out there for a musical I directed that production put his name on, just assuming he would be working it, but it was in fact musically directed by another person. Oops. We have since apologized to that other person. As for full shows we have written, the current total is two. But, we have contributed additional material for other projects.
How did writing this OZ show come about?
Justin: We were working independently on another show which we were having difficulty acquiring the rights for, and out of the blue Sam called me and asked if I had read The Marvelous Land of Oz. I said that I had and it was one of my favorite books when I was a kid! The book is in the public domain so we didn’t have to worry about getting rights.
Sam: My mother read me all the L. Frank Baum penned Oz books when I was a kid and The Marvelous Land of Oz really stuck out in my head as the first “gotcha” ending. That sort of thing is pretty typical in storytelling now-a-days, but it blew my mind when I was little. We also wanted a show with strong roles for young ladies. Often shows are written for the guys (Peter and the Starcatcher, Newsies) and the girls are left with crumbs. We really want to strive to provide great opportunities for women and even up the playing field.
Talk about the road from pen to workshop to now. Did songs come and go?
Justin: Typically Sam sends me lyrics and then I come up with some music that I think fits it best. Sometimes Sam also tells me a concept for the song or sings me a small musical idea that he thought of and I expand that into a full song.
Sam: There have been times when I’ve sent things to Justin with a really specific idea, and then he’ll surprise me with a wonderful and different take on it and we’ll springboard into a completely new direction.
I wouldn’t say we lost too much from the staged reading to production. Mostly there were conceptual changes. Increasing the stakes and making sure themes proliferated the entire show. We were also blessed with amazing talent in our staged reading from our friends in the local theater community from Village and 5th Ave and a lot of really great feedback along the way.
As both the creators of, and now the people responsible for producing this show, are you finding it challenging to wear several hats?
Justin: Yes, we are the writers and the directors! I originally wrote the music for adults to sing. It has been a lot of work to repurpose the music for young adults, but the result is music specifically tailored for their skill level which they are very successful at!
Sam: It hasn’t really hit us yet that this is OUR show. We’re just trying to put on the best production possible. It has been nice though that when we want something changed we know the writers–that is, us.
What element of the show is particularly significant to LGBT audiences?
Sam: In researching this story, I found out that Baum’s mother-in-law was a suffragette. It is a huge influence in his work, especially this one where he examines the expression of gender, femininity and strength. There is also a character in the show that realizes who they are on the inside does not match what they look like on the outside, and goes through a monumental change…not to give too much away though. I think many people in the LGBT community will see themselves reflected in that character. Especially now-a-days.
Justin: I find it interesting that Baum wrote the story not intending to reach an LGBT audience, but in the present day there are elements of the story that do resonate strongly with that community.
Sam: We have laboriously worked on the language since we wanted to make sure we dealt with the issues in a positive way. Many opinions were heard and taken into consideration. The Studio has been really great in allowing us to explore these themes and this character’s development. They have been nothing but supportive. It’s always been such a welcoming place to artists and students, and allows them to be exactly who they are.
You told me Studio East has commissioned a new musical from you. Any preview of what it will be and will you want to look at other OZ books to musicalize down the yellow brick road?
Sam: We have been commissioned to write a modern adaptation of Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass that will receive a full production next Spring. I’ve started the preliminary shaping of the story and we’ve already written one song. We want to create shows with an emotional arch beyond ‘little girl gets lost in strange land’ and events happen TO her. It has been my feeling that a heroine should be proactive in her journey. We’re planning to do a staged reading of the show in January as a benefit for Studio East and will be looking for professional talent willing to donate their time for that.
Justin: I’m a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and my favorite part of those stories is that Lewis Carroll’s love for games shows up a lot. I am a huge lover of games myself and so I am excited that Sam and I are going to focus on the concept that Alice goes through games to challenge her and allow her to make proactive choices.
Sam: There’s another Oz book I’d love to adapt called Tik Tok of Oz. The problem is that it really isn’t about Oz. In later books Baum started throwing Oz into stories, even if only for a chapter, because he knew it would sell the book. So, if we approached that one it may need to be “inspired by” but not a direct adaptation since the best thing for the story might be stripping the Oz out of it altogether.
5th Ave and Village Theatre tend to develop new works that begin life outside of Seattle. What does it mean to have support to produce and create new works here?
Sam: Justin and I have been very lucky to have such a great place like Studio East that allows us to develop and produce our work. A lot of writers/creators have to hustle to get their work seen and we can devote those energies to being creative. There is an amazingly talented pool of creators right here in the Northwest and I think we are going to see a lot of great work coming from them in the future. Hopefully, works will start here but enrich lives in the world at large.
Justin: We’re also passionate about creating shows that work for children’s theatre. We find that the repertoire of shows that are commonly performed in children’s theatre is really quite small, and it takes only a few years before titles are repeated. We would like to widen that repertoire and have a diverse selection of titles that children can perform.
Sam: And that the whole family can enjoy. But, not be afraid of tackling real stories and issues.
Any closing thoughts?
Sam: It is my hope that children and adults will get more out of this musical than just another adventure in Oz. Although there are plenty of silly moments, there’s also a lot of heart and an amazing message for girls (and boys). Also, some pretty great music, if I do say so myself.
Justin: It’s been wonderful to see this script and score we created come to life on stage, and I hope that audiences enjoy the story and music just as much as we do.
The Marvelous Land of Oz runs through June 15, 2016 at Studio East in Kirkland. For tickets, directions to the theatre and more go to studio-east.org.